Police and other first responders on the scene, dismantling and securing a busted meth lab in Wolf River, Wisconsin. (Source: Langlade County Sheriff's Department.)

One afternoon last month, the chief of our rural volunteer fire department called my husband with a heads-up before our pagers went off: Law enforcement needed the department to stand by while they processed another meth lab.

The first time our department aided law enforcement in processing a drug house was one afternoon a few years ago. As you can imagine, information about and the location of an impending operation were closely guarded until officers had secured the scene. The fire chief phoned a few people he thought might be able to respond with our equipment, but law enforcement didn’t want to page out the department on an open local government channel. With fire trucks and cop cars visible from the highway, it didn’t take long for folks to figure out what was up. And the location wasn’t a surprise to most of the neighborhood. As I recall, EMS had been called to that location the day before for a drug overdose. 

Bill and I watched one season of Breaking Bad on DVD from the library. It didn’t quite prepare me for what I heard law enforcement removed from that house.

I wasn’t on that scene, but Bill told me about it when he got home. He told me how the fire department’s primary role was to be prepared to protect the officers processing evidence if volatile chemicals ignited and to keep looky-lous on the road moving. I stayed home and prayed for everyone involved in the operation.

This time, the chief said the sheriff’s department estimated they would need assistance around 5 p.m. We anticipated responders would be coming from work and be on the scene for several hours. That’s the kind of situation where we need to feed our volunteers, so I planned to respond. Except for that rough estimate on the time, that’s the only information we had.

This time, there was a discreetly worded page broadcast on our local government channel to respond “per sheriff’s department conversation with your chief,” and the chief radioed all responding personnel to meet first at our fire station for a briefing.

Text alerts to the fire department included the information that the event was spawned from a search warrant and that sheriff’s deputies and a Department of Justice hazmat team were on the scene. It also gave the location – an address off the highway on a dead-end road. And it was less than a mile from my home. 

I never saw that coming. But maybe I should have. On the scene, we heard it appeared the suspect had been burning evidence in an outdoor fire pit. The weekend before, Bill and I smelled burning plastic at our place. Another neighbor smelled it then, too. At the time, we were concerned that a trash fire or burn barrel might spark a wildland fire. The idea that a meth cooker might be burning one-pot stills from what is commonly called Shake and Bake meth manufacturing — well, that never occurred to us. At the time, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to form that thought.

In a rural area, rumors generally travel faster than fire in dry grass. But Fire and EMS responders are not supposed to be part of the rumor mill. Our department’s Facebook page gets comments asking whose house had the fire or if anyone was injured in a motor vehicle accident. We can’t answer those. We try to mask identifiers like license plates in photos we do post. Then we get comments that we shouldn’t post pictures at all because the vehicle looked like one belonging to someone else and three people texted that someone else’s mom to find out if it was her in the accident. 

I’m undecided whether the number of looky-lous is increased or decreased by social media. It probably varies from one situation to the next. I do know that if rural fire departments don’t post on social media, our communities don’t really know the types of things we do, the challenges we face, the time we contribute to the community, and why more volunteers are so desperately needed. And they have only the rumor mill to turn to for information. 

We didn’t post anything on social media after our response to support law enforcement at the drug lab near my home. When the sheriff’s department posted, we shared their post without comment. It read:

On Monday, 03/29/2021 at approximately 12:05 p.m. investigators from the Langlade County Sheriff’s Office and Antigo Police Department responded to a residence in the Township of Wolf River to execute a search warrant. During the execution of the search warrant, an extensive clandestine “one pot” methamphetamine lab was located in and around a garage on the property. A resident that was present at this time was immediately evacuated as a safety precaution.

Members of the Wisconsin State Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement and Response (CLEAR) Team were requested at the scene. CLEAR Team members safely removed more than 60 one-pot methamphetamine production vessels, as well as hazardous chemicals, fuels, medications, and other precursors used in the production of methamphetamine. Several of the methamphetamine production vessels had previously exploded. In addition, more than a thousand used hypodermic needles were located throughout the property. All of the hazardous waste and potentially dangerous methamphetamine-related items were removed by the CLEAR Team and will be properly disposed of. The Langlade County Health Department responded and condemned the garage.

The suspect, a 39-year-old Langlade County man, was located by the Merrill Police Department and taken into custody without incident. He is currently being held at the Langlade County Jail on recommended charges that include Manufacturing Methamphetamine, Possession of Methamphetamine, Possessing Materials for Manufacturing Methamphetamine, Knowingly Possessing Methamphetamine Waste, Possession of Methamphetamine Paraphernalia, Maintaining a Drug Trafficking Place, 2nd Degree Recklessly Endangering Safety, Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, Obstructing an Officer, Child Neglect, and Misdemeanor Bail Jumping. Another resident is being referred for possible criminal charges to include Maintaining a Drug Trafficking Place. 

Law enforcement, Fire, and EMS personnel remained on scene until approximately 9:15 p.m. The Langlade County Sheriff’s Office was assisted in this investigation by the Antigo Police Department, the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), the Merrill Police Department, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the Fox Valley Metro Police Department, Wolf River & White Lake Volunteer Fire Departments, the City of Antigo Fire Department, the Langlade County Health Department, and CLEAR Team members from agencies that included DCI, the Brown County Sheriff’s Office, the Forest County Sheriff’s Office, and the Shawano Police Department.

I was at that scene and didn’t know most of that until I read their post. And I appreciated that they took the time to share that information. In a county-wide after-action review after a 2019 derecho storm slammed our area, the sheriff felt his department had room for improvement in how they communicate with the public. They have made a concerted effort and the improvement shows. 

Our communities don’t always get as much information as they want as quickly as they want. Our neighbors may not realize that we can’t answer texts while driving to a scene. Once on the scene, it’s usually too noisy to hear text alerts. We’re too busy to respond anyway. A loss of focus can be dangerous. And on most scenes, we can see maybe a quarter of the situation from one vantage point. There may be a lot more going on, or there may be very little. But if folks are patient, we will share what information we can when it’s safe to do so and we are reasonably sure it is accurate.

In the meantime, you might see strong hints that something oh-so-rumor-worthy is about to happen. Years ago when fewer people were engaged on social media twenty-four-seven, I was at Incident Command on a search and rescue call when a line of vehicles rolled through the intersection of two state highways near a large tract of National Forest land. Two of the SUVs were marked Border Patrol. This is northern Wisconsin. We’re a long way from either Canada or Mexico, so we were pretty sure what that meant. The next day a joint task force busted a marijuana growing operation in the forest, and we haven’t seen Border Patrol here since. If we did, we sure wouldn’t post it on Facebook.

But what about if you smell something. From time to time we get personal calls from friends and acquaintances who would like someone driving a fire truck to have a word with neighbors about their illegal burning. Usually, it’s because the direct approach didn’t work but they want to avoid calling law enforcement or the DNR when it’s “just trash.” That might change now, knowing as we do that charges against our neighbor included Felon in Possession of a Firearm. We can’t say for sure it was meth stills we smelled burning before that drug bust. But we sure smelled something. And knowing a drug lab was operating so close and we had no clue? That really stinks.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in eastern Langlade County, Wisconsin. She reminds readers who may collect trash along rural roads to be careful what they pick up. A soda bottle used as a meth one-pot still may contain chemical residues that can mix to create toxic fumes that can explode when the vessel is picked up. If the contents appear flaky, the cap is mismatched, or there are tubes coming out, don’t touch it and call law enforcement. For more information visit https://knowmethwi.org/know-meth/ .